On Faithless Preachers

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticApr 1, 2010 9:20 PM


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Everyone's favorite atheist neuro-philosopher Daniel Dennett and colleague Linda LaScola present a paper on Preachers who are not Believers - Christian clergy who stopped believing in God, in some cases many years ago, but remain in their jobs.

It's well worth a read; it's free to access, and very well written. Dennett and LaScola interviewed five (anonymous) preachers, from a variety of American Protestant denominations. All have been atheists, or something very close to it, for some time. And all are, as you'd expect, "in the closet" about their lack of belief, although some have admitted it to selected colleagues and confidants.

Two things struck me about the five men's stories. First, they're all reasonably content with their situation. Partially this must reflect the selection criteria: this was designed as a study of faithless preachers, not ex-preachers. But it's also a testament to the fact that people can accommodate themselves to fulfill even the most contradictory of roles.

Most of these men would find it very difficult to quit, because their whole career, salary, friends, and in a couple of cases marriage, are bound up in the church. But most have come see their position as morally acceptable because they see Christianity as a force for good, even if the doctrines are wrong:

Another says

My first few years of doing this were wracked with, ‘God, should I be doing this? Is this ---? Am I being ---? Am I posing? Am I being less than authentic; less than honest?’ … And, I really wrestled with it and to some degree still. But not nearly as much. I will be the first to admit that I see Christianity as a means to an end, not as an end unto itself. And the end is very basically, a kind of liberal, democratic values.

The second thing that interested me was the idea that the faithless priest situation is a lot less unusual than you'd think. A recurring theme in the stories of these five is that their doubts started in seminary, when they were first introduced to archaeology and Biblical criticism, the historical and linguistic study of the Bible.

I will say one strong aspect of any religion, I’d guess, that I’ve been in is the community life. You have great friends who are close; you can depend on them. When there’s hard times, financially, emotionally, whatever, you’ve got a support group.

Now, it's quite difficult to study these things and remain a believer in the idea that the Bible is anything like the inerrant word of God. But most American churches, and not just the very liberal ones, require their clergy to take Masters level courses in them at seminary.

Rank and file church members don't have to do this and most don't, leaving them more free to hold stronger or literalist views. So the clergy are, paradoxically, often the ones with the most liberal i.e. least traditional interpretation of the things they preach:

As someone who hasn't sat down in a church for a decade I don't really know how true this is. Maybe Dennett, LaScola and these five men are exaggerating the size of the "gulf" - but it sounds plausible. If so it suggests that these atheists are just the extreme end of a spectrum of more or less doubtful clergy.

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles....Every Christian minister, not just those in our little study, has to confront this awkwardness, and no doubt there are many more ways of responding to it than our small sample illustrates. How widespread is this phenomenon? When we asked one of the other pastors we talked with initially if he thought clergy with his views were rare in the church, he responded “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” Surely an overstatement, but a telling one.

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